A legal aid society is an organization that offers free or low cost legal services to low income residents. The types of cases handled by these groups may differ by jurisdiction. The guidelines for qualifying for legal services through a legal aid society will also differ by jurisdiction.
Funding for a legal aid society may come from local, regional, or national sources, but the organization is usually a not-for-profit entity. In most cases, the organization will have a board of directors that determine what type of cases will be handled by the organization as well as who will qualify to receive services. Staff attorneys will generally provide pro bono — at no cost — services to clients. In addition to full-time staff attorneys, other licensed attorneys in the area may offer their services for a limited number of cases each year pro bono for eligible clients.
Typical cases handled by a legal aid society include divorce, domestic abuse protective orders, landlord-tenant disputes, bankruptcy, and other civil cases. Legal aid societies do not usually handle criminal cases. Services offered range from information and advice only services to representation throughout the entire case by a licensed attorney. Seminars are also frequently offered to help inform local residents regarding their legal rights and to answer basic legal questions.
The process by which clients are determined to be eligible for the services offered by a legal aid society will vary by jurisdiction but generally includes an evaluation of the client's income and assets. In order to qualify for a pro bono attorney, a client's total household income must fall below a pre-determined threshold. In some cases, such as a divorce or domestic violence situation, the spouse's income may not be considered in computing the household income if it appears that the client does not have access to that income.
If an applicant meets all the eligibility requirements, then the services provided by the legal aid society will be free of cost in most cases. The client may still be required to pay mandatory filing fees; however, a fee waiver may be available. A fee waiver is essentially a request, filed by the client, asking the court to waive the filing fee associated with the case. If the court determines that the client is unable to afford the fee, then the court will waive the fee and allow the client to proceed in forma pauperis — as a poor person.